Salon | Media Circus: All along the ivory tower

ALL ALONG THE ivory TOWER____________

All along the ivory tower


A recent Dylan symposium at Stanford proved that as rock fans, academics can babble with the most brain-dead metalheads.

BY MICHAEL BATTY | Among the rewards of listening to pop lyrics, getting them wrong ranks high. "A mosquito, my libido" (from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") becomes "Mendocino, my burrito"; and in "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "the girl with colitis goes by." These goofs -- often abetted by the mewling, sloppy-drunk singer -- are called mondegreens. They remind us of popular music's frivolity and mercifully brief shelf life; sometimes they're even funny. But for all the public's adoration of garbled transmissions, academia seems to have done them one better. At a recent Bob Dylan symposium at Stanford's Kresge Auditorium, professors didn't just slur jingles, they slurred significance. Nowhere else, save perhaps the remotest fringes of a fan club, could Bob Dylan's nasalizing be given such soft-focus, generous scrutiny. (Not even at Wednesday's Grammys, which incongruously placed a score of black-clad young men and women behind the Old Master in an effort to demonstrate his continuing relevance.)

The symposium offered shaky pop culture theory and better praxis, the latter ably demonstrated by the $14.50 price of admission and the black and white photos of Dylan and other Village luminaries available in the lobby for $50 a pop. Ten or so presenters stroked pet theories down to the bone. Program titles like "Only a Pawn in Their Game: Bob Dylan and Politics," "The Sound of One Dog Barking: Bob Dylan and Religious Experience" and "A Long Way from Hibbing: Bob Dylan's Black Masque" promised to confuse fandom with acumen. Among the half-capacity audience, the fans were teeming, if not ubiquitous. One couple flipped through bloated chapbooks of Dylan lyrics, reading along and cuddling as songs were discussed. Elsewhere, ponytails and comb-overs were cast into stark relief by pink, reflecting scalps. Proceedings would be partisan -- boomer, by jingo -- though moderator Susan Dunn of the Stanford Humanities Department provided a brief tilt at the podium: "I'd like to ask that this be more than an exercise in nostalgia and canonization." Hear, hear -- and good luck.

The program's biggest academic name, Christopher Ricks ("Keats and Embarrassment"), a core curriculum professor at Boston University, made a case for classic mondegreens during "Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet," a treatise on Dylan's latest album, Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" and how nice it is to rhyme. "What you gain on the hearing," Ricks said of Dylan's sage verse, "you lose on the sense." Examples followed: How "ode" could sound like "owed," "hear" like "here" and "cents" like "sense." (You might ask, So what? Good for you.) Ricks put such gravity into his reading of Dylan's catchy doggerel that you'd think you were hearing a King James edition of "The Cat in the Hat." "Can you tell me what you're waiting for/Señor," Ricks intoned. "Down the street the dogs are barking/And the day is getting dark." "Do room/Do room/Do room." Ricks played snippets from "Not Dark Yet," and the auditorium filled with a voice that has only grown more bizarre, more nasal, over time, to the point where it now seems to have left Dylan's nose altogether, dangling at its tip. But Ricks was right: Dylan can rhyme.

German studies Professor Tino Markworth provided an apt assessment of most other presentations in his own, "Too Much Educated Rap? Bob Dylan and Academia" -- though perhaps only by accident. "Society is a confused series of discourses determined by power structures," Markworth said, toeing the pomo party line and lamenting the "transmission of information that obscures Dylan." The speakers had an easy time talking about anything but Dylan in their attempts to lend him context. The Tupperware mattered, not the leftovers. Markworth himself, despite the initial illusory promise of one con for every pro, only ended up huffing air into the rubbery proposition of a Bob Dylan studies program.

Drama Professor Rush Rehm's "Only a Pawn in Their Game" was devoted in turn to bitching about the Gulf War and the genocide of the Native American and quoting Noam Chomsky. "I'm dealing with a debased subject," Rehm conceded. "Politics, not Bob Dylan." Rehm's passion for outrage was enviable (as was his shame at admitting that Dylan had sold the rights to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to the Bank of Montreal), but his thesis elusive. "We've become suspicious of folk music," Rehm dubiously proposed at one point, "thanks to the celebration of Das Folk: the Nazis."

"Labels and categories have an important heuristic function," explained Religious Studies professor Mark Gonnerman, who went on to grace Dylan with four: prophetic, apocalyptic, biblical and transcendentalist. Why? To underscore the importance of skepticism in religion, quoting some more of those allegedly elliptical Dylan lyrics: "I only asked for something that I'm gonna understand." Me too.

English Professor Aldon Nielsen chanted lyrics by blues musician Leadbelly and spoke of "metaphoricity and vocal particularity" in "Blowin' in the Wind," by way of suggesting that Dylan, among others, wanted to sound black. Regarding Dylan's electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival -- mention of which seems obligatory in any Dylan scholar's deciphering of the obvious -- Nielsen said: "Dylan's blues were no longer attired in their racial workshirt." (Nielsen was good for these one-liners. My fave: "Uncle Remus was another pure product of American race dreams.")

Stepped forward Stephen Ronan, who never took off his sunglasses and went on for an hour or nine with "The Visionary Road: Rimbaud, Kerouac, Dylan," speaking mostly about the first two, and about the keen insight offered by fucked-up outsiders in general. Dylan apparently exhibited some during a road trip, toking weed from the dashboard and uttering platitudes like, "Time doesn't exist; it's an illusion -- the other side of Dali's clocks." Don't bogart that joint. From his podium, Ronan quoted his subjects with a repertoire of vocal impressions, like a misplaced and none-too-gifted Catskills comedian.

The grand prize for casting fog, however, went to the University of Victoria's Stephen Scobie, who delivered an audiovisual book report titled "Renaldo & Allen: Allen Ginsberg's Role in 'Renaldo & Clara,'" on a 292-minute cinematic indulgence directed by Dylan in 1978. "I'm afraid this paper does assume an audience that has had a chance to see 'Renaldo & Clara,'" Scobie said. Few, if any, had. (Dylan yanked it out of circulation after critics failed to recognize his cross-platform genius.) Scobie offered meticulous descriptions of various scenes and voice-overs featuring Ginsberg -- the best of which, for its almost folkloric invocation of the pretentious, left Ginsberg bare-assed and about to be horsewhipped by a negligee-sporting Anne Waldman. During a Q&A period, Scobie admitted that he had only seen one "barely watchable copy" of "Renaldo & Clara," whose ancestor, several bootlegged generations back, was taped directly off BBC during the film's sole telecast. Rarely does one have the chance to see so much energy put into the exaltation of bad art -- akin to deducing the shape of a priceless antique stencil from a doodle found by the urinal.

Listening to these scholars -- most of whom were males of boomer age -- I couldn't help but imagine them as kids, encamped decades ago in the pall of the TV, hapless as their critical faculties weltered and eroded in the bombardment. They had acquired little immunity to the broadcast, and it left them with no means to separate the fun from the profound. This might explain the monolithic importance some mid-lifers attribute to the trappings of their youth, and the present professors' desire to hand us ornate shoe boxes in which to hoard pop culture's trifles. These men were obviously well-versed theorists who had pursued their mark in earnest. So what.

Markworth defended the day's endless paving of Dylan: "Academic inquiry does not need to reside in an ivory tower." Though overstated (and suspiciously fretful about irrelevance), this is true: Anything public -- including pop culture -- should be fair game in academia. How, then, should professors approach this bohemian adenoid they love so much? By following the example of Maria Johnson (Southern Illinois University), who initiated her presentation with an admission: "I am not a Bob Dylan scholar." So much the better. Her paper, titled "Performed Literature: The Music of Bob Dylan," cited specific examples from Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" to illuminate song craft, even as she denounced the song's sexist refrains ("You fake just like a woman/But you break just like a little girl"). Johnson, a music professor, stuck with the concrete: chord movement, monosyllabic lyrical accents, changing dynamics, denigrating content. She was certainly less passionate than the others, but more cogent and more interesting. She could observe the song from enough of a distance to describe it, hairy harping warts and all. You didn't have to like Dylan to listen to Johnson. Her half hour elapsed like half an hour. Two presenters followed Johnson -- including one doctoral student whose point seemed to be that adding reverb to Dylan's recordings made them sound different -- but she outshone them and the rest.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with fandom -- it's endearing enough, even after several hours of labored analysis. And mondegreens are healthy enough as a pastime, if not as pedagogy. But professors who cloak the heroes of their youth in obfuscation are no different from the mullet-headed Black Sabbath fans who ardently hail Ozzy Osbourne as a genius, and "Vampire Lestat" groupies who insist that Anne Rice speaks to the ages. Groom your pets in private, where you can misapprehend their importance to the fullest. Exploring their anatomy in public becomes a charmless act of haruspication -- combing through bowels for want of magic. 
SALON | Feb. 27, 1998

Michael Batty is a San Francisco writer.


[EDLIS Notes]

This review gives the most detail about each presentation at the conference. As you see, it was not written by a Dylan fanatic.

But as Tino Markworth pointed out in his summary of the conference: "That Stanford University staged a conference about Bob Dylan at all -- that was the news -- and unfortunately not, how Dylan was framed and debated at the conference."